ARF on Contexts

How Context Can Make Advertising More Effective

by Horst Stipp
originally published in June 2018 issue of The JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING RESEARCH  


Editors’ Note
There is a rich body of scholarship—nearly 60 years’ worth—on context effects in advertising, yet significant gaps remain. Most of the literature involves television, but with the digital marketplace in constant flux, advertisers and marketers risk missing key opportunities to be more effective at promoting their products and services across a variety of media. In 2017, in response to renewed interest among its members—and as part of its ongoing How Advertising Works initiative—the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) addressed context effects by first reviewing the literature to date and then conducting its own original experiments with partnering firms. Around that time, other research also was in progress. In this essay, Horst Stipp, executive vice president of research and innovation at the ARF, describes the mixed results from the earlier body of work and explains how the more recent studies (2015–2018) provide new insights to advance theory and practice in this area. He concludes by offering suggestions for marketers on how this latest research can help them benefit from context in advertising.


Whenever a consumer sees an advertisement, it is not in isolation but in a “context.” Context refers to the media space in which the advertisement is embedded—for example, a television program, magazine, website, or social media feed. Does this context influence consumers’ perceptions of and response to the advertising, and, if so, what causes these “context effects” to take place?

In 1958, a marketer first addressed this issue and suggested that television-program genres can influence perceptions about advertisements (Schwerin, 1958). Since then, through six decades, dozens of studies have investigated the impact of factors surrounding commercial messages. As part of the Advertising Research Foundation’s (ARF’s) ongoing “How Advertising Works” (HAW) project, in 2017 the current author led a review of the body of research on context effects. HAW’s mission is to generate new research insights that help marketers advertise more effectively (Stipp, 2016).

The literature review revealed that, although the evidence was not conclusive, most studies had found that context does indeed affect consumers’ response to the advertising and that context can help make advertisements either more or less effective. Early findings included higher recall for commercials in consumers’ favorite programs (Clancy and Kweskin, 1971) and enhanced advertising impact from “program–product congruence” (Kennedy, 1971). Reviews of context-effects research have documented that those findings were replicated during the following decades (Goldberg and Gorn, 1987; Pelsmacker, Geuens, and Anckaert, 2002; Schumann and Thorson, 1990).

Although the studies overwhelmingly supported the notion that advertising context moderates advertisement effects, they did not sufficiently explain which effects are likely (e.g., more advertisement liking? better recall? more purchases? negative effects?) and under what conditions context effects occur (Bellman, Wooley, and Varan, 2016; Lynch and Stipp, 1999; Pelsmacker et al., 2002). Whereas there was strong support for positive effects from context–advertisement alignment (also called “content–advertisement congruence” or “program–advertisement matching”; Kennedy, 1971), other studies found such effects only under some circumstances, depending on the interactions of mood and tone (e.g., Kamins, Marks, and Skinner, 1991).

The ARF concluded that it was important to take a fresh look at context effects because of the changing media and marketing environment and also because of shortcomings in the body of evidence on this issue.

The authors of a 2018 meta-analysis covering studies up to 2013 came to the same conclusions Kwon, King, Nyilasy, and Reid, 2018). Despite “mixed results,” the authors recommended that “media professionals should consider media context when making media decisions” (p. 18).

The ARF’s review (Stipp, 2016) found, moreover, that much of the context-effects research was focused narrowly. Nearly all studies were done on television commercials, and only a few considered magazines or radio (Moorman, Neijens, and Smit, 2002; Norris and Colman, 1992, 1996). Very few studies, moreover, have explored the effects of other advertisements as context (Poncin and Derbaix, 2009). Finally, to the author’s knowledge, no published context-effects research had focused on return on investment (ROI) until the ARF did its own research (Bacon, Bhardwaj, and Gopalakrishnan, 2017; Bacon and Stipp, 2017).

The ARF concluded that it was important to take a fresh look at context effects because of the changing media and marketing environment and also because of shortcomings in the body of evidence on this issue. The researchers also were confident that they would be able to gain new insights that would help marketers take advantage of content effects, because they were getting access to new studies conducted in today’s environment and received sponsor support to conduct original research. Continue reading.